Hands Across the Water: Brazil's large Syrian community absorbs refugees

News Stories, 6 August 2013

© UNHCR/K.Fusaro
Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers gather informally on a Sao Paulo street. Brazil has recognized around 200 Syrians as refugees since the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011.

SAO PAULO, Brazil, Aug 6 (UNHCR) When Syrian businessman Nidal Hassan flew to Sao Paulo a year ago it was not his first visit to Brazil, but this time he was looking for shelter and a new start rather than business opportunities.

"We didn't have a choice because our situation in Syria became unsustainable," said the 53-year-old from the city of Homs, which has been devastated by heavy fighting between government and rebels forces since the Syria crisis erupted in March 2011.

He said that before they left Homs, people had begun searching for food under the rubble of destroyed buildings and, "We ran out of gas and drinking water." Nidal said he had decided to leave because they were risking their lives by staying, but his older daughter stayed behind with her husband and children.

But instead of seeking shelter in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan or Egypt, which together have taken in 1.89 million Syrians, Nidal decided to head across the Atlantic to Brazil, which has a big Syrian community. He was not the only one; Brazil has granted asylum to just over 200 Syrian refugees in the past two-and-a-half years and a further 50 claims are waiting to be processed. In April, the number of asylum-seekers recognized was up 50 per cent on the month before.

The Brazilian government has approved 100 per cent of the asylum claims presented so far by Syrian nationals, but many more people may have flown to the country and not bothered to seek asylum.

"We assume that the number of Syrians living in Brazil because of the conflict is much bigger than the figure revealed by the official statistics," said Andrés Ramirez, UNHCR's representative in Brazil. He said that this was because many of the new arrivals were staying with family or friends among the estimated 3 million-strong Syrian community, which is playing a key support role.

Syrian asylum-seekers had started arriving in Brazil from the very beginning of the conflict and officials said this was this was due to the strong historical links between the two countries and the big Syrian community.

Most of the asylum-seekers have presented their claims in Sao Paulo, which hosts the largest Syrian community, but they have also approached the authorities in other cities and states where Syrians are settled, including the Federal District, Southern Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul.

But the government and several humanitarian organizations, such as UNHCR implementing partner Caritas Sao Paulo as well as the Syrian Orthodox Church, provide needy refugees and asylum seekers with aid, including psycho-social assistance, emergence financial grants and Portuguese-language classes to ease their integration.

The government provides them with the documentation needed to access public services, such as education and health, and to find employment, rent a place to stay and open a bank account. The most vulnerable cases receive extra support.

"With the Portuguese language classes, I am trying to minimize my dependence on other people and improve my chances of finding a job," said Ali Humsi, who arrived in Brazil from Syria with his family more than a year ago.

His experience reflects the integration challenges that most of the Syrians face in Brazil due to cultural differences, including those who are highly trained. Kamal Abogavar was an IT expert back in Syria, but he now works as a sales assistant in a central Sao Paulo clothes store owned by a fellow Syrian.

Within the Syrian community, businessman Amer Masarani coordinates a support group in Sao Paulo that began as a Facebook page. He has been living in Brazil for the last 15 years and through his local network, Masarani, raises money to pay the rent for people arriving from Syria. He has also helped some refugees get jobs with Syrian-owned companies in Sao Paulo.

In another neighbourhood, Father Gabriel Dahho mobilizes the members of the Syrian Orthodox Church to collect cloths and money for the refugees. He also offers Portuguese classes and jobs. Father Gabriel has relatives exiled in Germany and works in close coordination with Caritas to help refugees, with funding from UNHCR and the Brazilian government.

"UNHCR considers that the vast majority of Syrian nationals leaving their country under the current circumstances are in need of international protection," the refugee agency's Ramirez stressed. "We are glad to see Brazil keeping its borders open and processing asylum claims in a timely manner.

According to official figures, Brazil hosts around 4,300 recognized refugees from more than 70 different nationalities. The main groups are from Angola, Colombia and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country has recently adopted a cessation of refugee status clause for Angolans and Liberians, and as soon as those individuals receive a permanent visa, Syrians will represent the third biggest group of recognized refugees living in Brazil.

By Karin Fusaro and Luiz Fernando Godinho in Sao Paulo, Brazil




UNHCR country pages

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

Iraqi Refugees in Syria: 2,000 New Arrivals Daily

The UN refugee agency is increasingly alarmed over the continuing violence in Iraq and distressed about the lack of an international humanitarian response to deal with the massive numbers of people being displaced. After an assessment mission in November last year, UNHCR officials warned that the agency was facing an even larger humanitarian crisis than it had prepared for in 2002-03. But UNHCR and other organisations are sorely lacking in funds to cope with the growing numbers of displaced.

In an effort to fill the massive gap in funding, UNHCR in January 2007 launched a US$60 million appeal to cover its protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within strife torn Iraq.

The longer the Iraq conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

Posted on 5 February 2007

Iraqi Refugees in Syria: 2,000 New Arrivals Daily

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

UNHCR staff have been visiting and talking to urban refugees around Brazil to assess their protection needs of refugees and other people of concern. The refugee agency, working with local partners, carries out a three-week Participatory Assessment every year. UNHCR uses an age, gender and diversity approach during the exercise. This means also talking to minority and vulnerable groups, including women, older people, those living with disability and more. The findings allow UNHCR to develop an appropriate protection response. This year's exercise was conducted in five cities - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, Rio Grande de Sul and Manaus. Refugees taking part said the assessment allowed them to share views, problems and solutions with UNHCR and others. Various stakeholders, including government officials, aid workers and academics, also participated.

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

Turkey: Faysal's Flight from Kobane , SyriaPlay video

Turkey: Faysal's Flight from Kobane , Syria

More than 170,000 people have fled from the town of Kobane in northern Syria to escape a fierce offensive by ISIL militants. Faysal managed to escape to Turkey before the fighting in the cauldron of conflict intensified, but he still has some family left in the besieged town on the border.
Refugees Continue Flowing into TurkeyPlay video

Refugees Continue Flowing into Turkey

Turkey has opened borders point for Syrian Kurdish civilians fleeing clashes between ISIS militants and Kurdish forces. More than 138,000 have crossed over since Friday and more are expected.
UNHCR: Syrian Refugee numbers top three millionPlay video

UNHCR: Syrian Refugee numbers top three million

The number of refugees in Syria's intensifying crisis passes 3 million people, amid reports of horrifying conditions inside the country. Iman and her family were displaced four times inside Syria before finally seeking refuge in Lebanon.